Without delay, it should be understood that this is perhaps Faulkner's most difficult novel. To the inexperienced reader, some of the difficulties seem insurmountable, but if one perseveres, he will discover why many critics consider this to be Faulkner's greatest novel.
Of the many difficulties, the Faulknerian style is one of the major hindrances for the student unfamiliar with the Faulknerian diction. Another difficulty lies in determining what character is narrating certain aspects of the story, or when Faulkner as omniscient author begins narrating as opposed to one of the characters themselves.
Another difficulty is that a person is often talked about long before he is identified. For example, a character is often referred to simply as "he" long before that character is actually identified, and many small items of information are casually mentioned as though the reader knows the entire story.
The main difficulty, however, consists of how much of the plot is given by the various narrators as opposed to how much of the story is left untold and must be imaginatively recreated by the reader. To facilitate the reader's understanding of the various elements of plot as opposed to the story, perhaps a simple definition or example of the difference between plot and story should be offered. In Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner tells many aspects of the story, but then he leaves many aspects untold. In other words, the story is larger than the plot. The plot consists of those elements of the story which the author decides to narrate. For example, if a person went to the theater to see a play about Abraham Lincoln, he would know beforehand the entire story of Lincoln's life, but the plot of the drama would consist of those episodes which the dramatist chooses to dramatize. Likewise with Greek dramas which were based on ancient myths: the audience knew the entire story or myth, but would attend the theater to observe how the dramatist chose to emphasize certain aspects of the myth. In conclusion, those scenes or episodes which are presented in relationship to each other constitute plot whereas the story can involve matters which lie outside the plot narration.
The plot narration in Absalom, Absalom! is the most unique in modern fiction and occupies a sizeable portion of the reader's or critic's attention. To help the reader, Faulkner included at the end of the novel 1) a chronology of the central events, 2) a genealogy of the characters (for example, in the genealogy note that Faulkner indicates that Quentin died the year the novel ended making his death a part of the story, but we have no indication of this in the plot of the novel), and 3) a map of Yoknapatawpha county indicating the place where central events occurred.
Consequently, Faulkner mentions in the first chapter the most important or significant events of the entire story. By the end of the first chapter, Faulkner has told the reader almost the entire story, and in subsequent chapters will only offer subtle modifications of this large story told in this first chapter. Of course, on a first reading, we do not realize that this is the germinal of the plot, but all the essential facts are here. In subsequent chapters the plot will consist of narrating individual episodes of the general story; but essentially the basic outline of the entire Sutpen story is presented here in the first chapter.
The purpose, in bare outline, is to familiarize the reader with the story so that in all subsequent retellings the element of surprise will not interfere with the probing into the causes of the various actions. By the end of the first chapter, Faulkner wanted his reader to feel as though he knew the story as well as did the townspeople of Jefferson, Mississippi. As the story was both a part of Quentin's heritage and a part of the town of Jefferson, so by revealing much of the story now, it becomes, with each retelling, a familiar part of our heritage also. This is Faulkner's method of leading the reader into the story and making the reader accept it in the same way that Quentin accepts the story. Thus by this method the story gains a certain amount of universality. For example, the average reader is not aware of the fact that Faulkner tells us six different times in the first chapter about Sutpen's arrival in Jefferson because each retelling has a different purpose.
In literary terms, this constant reiteration of the story elements gives the story a mythic quality. This mythic quality then adds depth to the story since by analogy to other myths — if this story is viewed as mythic — it assumes additional validity. It requires a long time before a story attains mythic qualities and most of the myths of the world have long been accepted as great works or as great thoughts. Thus, if Faulkner can get the reader to accept his story as mythic in the first chapter, he has achieved another level of awareness which adds to the greatness of the novel.
As noted in another section, one of Faulkner's main emphasis is upon man's relationship to the past. This is to become one of the prominent themes in this novel. It emphasizes the idea that Faulkner is to develop later: that man cannot deny those aspects of the past which molded his personality; that man is responsible for the actions of the past. This idea receives additional emphasis when we examine the reason why Miss Rosa chose Quentin to accompany her on the journey. She seems to think that Quentin is aware of his heritage especially since he comes from one of the most prominent families of the town. This idea contrasts with the fact that Sutpen appeared from nowhere and had no discernible past.
Miss Rosa's past has been colored by forty-three years of hating Sutpen and thinking about his betrayal. (Note that Faulkner does not yet tell us what the betrayal is, but only that she has hated the "demon" for all these years.) Later, when we are able to interpret what her story means, we must remember that during these forty-three years the events have taken on a different meaning than they had when they first happened. Miss Rosa's narration is not always reliable because her hatred has caused her to interpret all of the events so as to account for her present condition.
When Miss Rosa mentions that her sister Ellen was a blind romantic fool, she is totally unaware that she is also a romantic fool. Throughout the novel, the emphasis on the Coldfield family as being romantic becomes central to interpreting the actions of the other characters of the novel. While all the Coldfields were romantic by nature, the Sutpens are cold and calculating and determined by nature. Consequently, the children of the Coldfield-Sutpen marriage will have either the Coldfield temperament or the Sutpen temperament. We see the first implications of this at the end of the first chapter. Henry's reaction to violence indicates that he is closely aligned to the romantic Coldfield nature. Furthermore, his later repudiation of his father, his loyalty to Bon, and other factors identify him as a romantic Coldfield. In contrast, Judith's nature is that of the Sutpens. Even though Faulkner does not depict it, we must assume by implication that Judith enjoys the violence.
Throughout Miss Rosa's narration there is the implication that Sutpen was in some way directly responsible for the downfall of the Coldfield family. She sees him as some type of brute instrument of God's injustice, in that the good and innocent are destroyed equally with the strong and wicked. Miss Rosa thinks that man is at the mercy of a capricious God who allows such demons as Sutpen to exist. However, she can never give a straight, logical reason for her beliefs and they must be viewed with some skepticism. It is implied throughout the novel that there is some type of connection between the Coldfield family and Sutpen before Sutpen arrived in Jefferson, but if this connection existed, it is never made clear to the reader.
Miss Rosa's narration also sets the key to an allegorical interpretation of the events of the Sutpen family being analogous to the rise and fall of the entire South. In her view, the South had to fail because such men as Sutpen controlled the South. When the hopes of the South are placed in the hands of men like Sutpen-men with strength, valor, and power but without pity or honor or compassion — then the South is doomed.
The crucial point in which Miss Rosa's narration differs from that of Mr. Compson and Quentin is in the reason each attributed for the failure of Judith and Bon to be married. Miss Rosa's reasoning is that the marriage was denied by Sutpen merely as an irresponsible and capricious act. The reader must remember then that Miss Rosa does not have available to her many of the facts which the other narrators know. She never met Bon, she never knew anything about Bon's parentage or past life, and therefore could not know the motivations which prompted Sutpen to deny the marriage. In fact, in this first chapter when she refers to the almost fratricide she is thinking that Bon was about to become Henry's brother-in-law and did not know that the murder was a true fratricide.